Ending the year on a high note: Manhunter

A couple of days ago, my sweetie wanted to stop at a place with the unexciting but clear name of Half-Price Books to sell some CDs (which she no longer needs since some nice fellow gave her an iPod for her birthday), I tagged along, and while she went about her business, I dug through the comics. The store has a pretty good collection of graphic books and a not-inconsiderable back issue collection, and it was there that I browsed, shuffling through all of the bins looking for something that would capture my attention. I passed up a NM Dell Turok, Son of Stone for $10; that'll probably turn out to be a mistake, since the price will likely double when the movie comes out. But I did find this wonderful book:

Manhunter: The Special Edition
Archie Goodwin, Walt Simonson, Klaus Janson
DC Comics: 1999

That less-than-wonderful image above is the gold-foil cover, so here's a better shot: a pin-up from the interior:

This was actually the second collection of this 1973-1974 back-up strip from Detective Comics; the first was published in 1979, and this special edition shortly after the death of writer/editor extraordinaire Archie Goodwin, who created the character.

And what a back-up this was! Like the recent Dr. 13 strip that seemed to overshadow anything else about Tales of the Unexpected, this strip commands my memory of 'Tec from back in the day: it was quite simply one of the most imaginative and wonderful strips ever.

Goodwin took a minor character from the forties - Paul Kirk, The Manhunter - and used his backstory as a springboard for a contemporary adventure that blended the spy genre and the ninja motif into a quest saga, and even managed to work The Batman into its climax without losing its own narrative integrity. The story was visualized by Walt Simonson, whose stylistic drawings managed to accommodate more plot and action in eight-page episodes than many artists could fit in a full book. He was particularly adept at filling each page with ten or twelve panels without sacrificing any necessary detail or falling into a grid pattern.

Here's an example of an extended action sequence compressed into one page, as Kirk (in red) takes on some evil clones (in blue) after he discovers the intrigue that surrounds his resurrection almost thirty years after WW2:

Simonson's beautiful artwork is matched by Goodwin's prose, which slides through the registers from hard-boiled to lyrical without missing a beat. This sequence, which describes Kirk's foray against the "legendary blind zen archers of Pendrang," the guardians of a hidden monastery, is perhaps my all-time favorite comics page, and is inarguably an example of comics storytelling at its best:

The Manhunter's search took him though six back-up strips and then found its conclusion in a full-length story that featured the magazine's star, Batman. This version of the Darknight Detective is so much more appealing than the perfect strategist/living encyclopedia that we currently know. Here's Batman checking out an assassin's rifle, found at a crime scene:

That's the kind of scene that speaks to pulpy roots of The Batman. He doesn't need to know everything; he knows people who knows lots of things. He is a detective - asking questions and finding information. Cool.

Manhunter's quest plays out to its formally necessary conclusion; I don't think anyone will be surprised to learn why this character has not appeared in any new adventures in thirty years. Perhaps that closure is one of the reasons the character is remembered so fondly; like celebrities who die young, he wasn't around long enough to be in anything crappy. Or maybe it's something bigger than that: maybe when Goodwin and Simonson created a story with an ending in mind, the storytelling became deeper and more meaningful that that done for a franchise or a open-ended serial. Whatever the case, the seventies Manhunter series is a masterpiece, and discovering this gem allowed me relive the thrills I had when I first encountered it.

You can check out the original comics if you have the spare change, or find the 1979 "Complete Saga" version, but this edition has some nice bonus features, the best of which might be a sort of coda: a follow-up strip completed by Simonson after Goodwin's death, from a story they co-plotted but never had a chance to produce.

Bonus note: I am the proud owner of a DC Direct cold-cast porcelain hand-painted statue of The Manhunter, number 456 in a limited series of 900 made in 2ooo, a gift from a great and good friend who has graced these pages before. It's pretty sweet:

Two years down

Today is the last day of the second year that I have been blogging about comics.

I don't know where the time has gone: there has been so much from The Last Shortbox® that I haven't gotten to yet.

The first twelve issues of the wildly exuberant American Flagg.
The only twelve issues of the nearly incomprehensible Thriller.
The thirteen issues of the spectacularly bitter Haywire.

Keif Llama, Dalgoda, Evangeline.
Somerset Holmes.
The Desert Peach.
Gilgamesh II.

And yet, I have pretty much kept to my once-a-week publishing schedule.

I hit my hit-high over last summer, and viewership has been declining since. In the last few weeks, however, when posting has been especially spotty, the numbers are going back up. I can only conclude people like the blog better when I don't write new things. That sure makes it easy.

Along the way, I have been distracted by a dalliance with buying new comics, a commitment to waiting for the trades, and a habit of spending way too much time reading other people's blogs. (I have no idea how y'all make enough time for the (usually) entertaining posts I keep reading.)

I am seriously considering a PhD program with a focus on comics, if I ever get my teaching situation completely sorted out. If that plan pans out, who knows what will become of this place?

I am also seriously considering re-structuring all of my blogs into a different sort of web presence, so even without any life changes, this site might have (another) new name and a new address.

I guess this blog is of excruciatingly minor importance in the grand scheme of things, but it's worth continuing if it's still fun.

And it's still fun.

And as Captain Fear would say,

'Appy 'Olleedaize and a 'Appy Noo Jear!
The Daily Telegraph Adventure Travel Show is coming to London, 25-27 January 2008. Some of the confirmed features include the Wanderlust Travel Advice and Travel Health and Equipment Theatres, Travel Writing and Photography seminars, Adventures for Over 50's and Solo Travel, and together with an impressive exhibitor list, it's bound to be a journey of discovery. Call 0870 112 9133 to book tickets or online here; they're £8 in advance.

Bangs, not Bams

I have been seeing stuff talking about Evan Dorkin's new book, Biff Bam Pow. The title rang a bell but the comic didn't look at all familiar (although it does look promising). It only took a second to remember what I was thinking of, and it was the work of moments to find it in the Last Shortbox:

BIFF BANG POW! #1 and #2
1991 & 1992: Paisano Publishing Company
Edited by Ivan Brunetti, with various contributio

I'm sure I picked these up new at Zanadu Comics in Seattle, In the nineties, I wasn't buying much regularly; the grim 'n' gritty, Liefield/Image era held no interest for me at all. This kind of oddball publication would have been the kind of thing that I sought out.

And it was oddball: an anthology title with a few continuing stories, it has an aggressively hip, art school, anti-establishment vibe to it that seems (from the perspective of fifteen years or so) a little contrived and pretentious.

The Fine Art Force, by Brunetti and Thad Doria, was a JLA-esque group of superheroes-based-on-art-styles (Impressionist Girl, Ms. Minimalist, Dr, realistic, Captain Cubist, and so on). It combined traditional spandex antics with art-based puns and in-jokes; it could have been insufferable, but it had a breezy charm that was hard to resist. They had adventures in both issues: "Hello, Dali!" and "Lend Me Your Ear" (and I'll bet you can guess who that one featured).

Brunetti contributed to a lot of the features. Here's his illustration of a slice-of-life story by Joe Schmitt:

And here's some early work by the great Jessica Abel:

Besides arty superheroes and the dread b&w autobiographicals, the series had all kinds of weird stuff. Ben Spide, Arachnid Investigator cast a big round spider in a hardboiled detective role; the Hanson Family Circus modified Keane panels in gruesome ways; Hitler's Sunday Comics gave Calvin's dad, Dagwood, Hi Flagstone, Dennis the Menace and others the dictator's hair, mustache, and evil personality; and It's the Precocious Little Shit was about -- well, you probably get the picture by now.

There were other, less crass features. Thad Doria tried some formalist tricks in a totally graphic story that had not word-balloons, but rather glyph-balloons: Agent C.:

My personal favorite was Lone Wolf and Bob, by Ken Hite, Doria, and Schmitt. Starting from sound-play with the title of the seminal series, the strip gave us the premise (without explanation) of a 16th Century ronin traveling in the cab of a contemporary semi driven by a tough trucker. In their brief career, they meet ninjas, a rival samurai clan, and an alien, coming out on top by a combination a eastern and western ass-kicking tactics. It was full of rollicking action and some surprisingly dry humor. Here's a sample joke, after Bob shotguns some evil samurai to help Lone Wolf out:

Overall, the books haven't aged extremely well: while the writing is sometimes inspired, it is often merely shocking for its own sake and generally undisciplined. The art demonstrated promise and potential, but occasionally careers into crappiness, and little details (like the lettering!) are often amateurish. In point of fact, there probably weren't a whole lot of resources available to Paisano Publishing (which I suspect was just Brunetti) and in that context, the books represent pretty good product. Check them out if you happen to run across any copies.

Note: Issue # 2 contains a house ad for issue #3, but I'm not sure it ever came out. The Great Comics Database Project has no listing at all.

Vote Now!

The People's 50 million Lottery Giveaway - 4 very worthy causes, including a local one, but there can only be one winner. Here's the countdown -

6th December:
Black Country as an Urban Park, supported by Toyah Willcox (11.05–11.20pm, ITV1)

7th December:
A recap of all four projects by their celebrity supporters (11.05–11.20pm, ITV1)

7-10th December:
Time to vote; voting closes 12pm on 10th December.

You will need to register in order to vote.

Conference Update

Journeys of Expression VII - Celebrating the Edges of the World: Tourism and Festivals of the Coast and Sea will be held 29th Feb-1st March 08 at University of Iceland, Reykjavík. Abstracts required by 14th December 2007 more...

Football & Television is a free event sponsored and supported by Coventry & Warwickshire 2012 Partnership and the BBC, to be held at Coventry University on 24th Jan 08. Admission is free, email Dr Simon Chadwick.

Call for Papers: Community, Capital and Cultures:Leisure and Regeneration as Cultural Practice for conference taking place 8-10th July 08 at Liverpool John Moores University. Deadline for abstracts - 15th Jan 08 more...

Call for Papers: The University of Savoie at Chambéry will be hosting their 4th research conference on leisure and tourism marketing with a specific focus on mountain tourism, 6th June 08, submissions by 10th March 08. Email me for further details.